Love’s greatest cure is salvation of one’s soul
Twelve months earlier . . .
Sergeant Shane Sherman looked up from the report he’d been filling out and gave Private Emma Jane Sloan his full attention.
“Sorry to bother you, Sir, but is it true you’re heading stateside next week?”
“That’s correct. Back to civvies for me, Private.”
Private Sloan, a kid barely out of high school, had stuck close to Shane from the moment she found out he was from her home state of Alaska. She’d lost her stepfather in high school and couldn’t afford college, so she’d signed up for the G.I. bill hoping to study to be a nurse. She was freckle-faced with bright red hair and blue eyes as clear as the sky, but she was too young, in his opinion, to be in this war. She was unprepared for the death and destruction at such a young age. Because of this, Shane had worried she couldn’t hack it in Afghanistan and, against protocol, had kept a close eye on her.
“It won’t be the same without you here, Sir,” she mumbled quietly, but Shane could see the fear written across her face. Laying his pen down, he stood from his desk in the infirmary and looked down at her. She stood erect, at attention, just as she had been trained to do, yet it seemed unnatural for someone so young. The civilian in Shane wanted to reach out to the frightened girl, but military regulations forbid fraternization with subordinates.
“You’ll be okay,” he responded, hoping like hell that he was right. “Stay alert and keep close to Sergeant McElroy.”
Tears pooled in her eyes, but she took a deep breath and held them back. Seeing that, Shane had to bite his lip to keep from wrapping her in a brotherly hug.
Jesus, she should be back home on a date, not tending to the wounded.
“Will you write?” she asked with hopefulness in her big, blue eyes. “I mean, will you keep in touch with the unit?”
“You bet. I’ll send the whole unit pictures of the bears we have back home.”
Private Sloan smiled then dipped her head, shoring up the nerve to ask him something.
“Um, I was wondering, when I come home, do you think I could, ah, come up and visit you?” she finally asked, the crush she had on him shining in her eyes.
Shane took a deep breath before he spoke; he didn’t want to lead her on. He was twelve years her senior and didn’t see her as a woman; he saw her as a kid sister. Most men would have seen the offer in her eyes and jumped at the chance to sleep with an attractive, young woman, but Shane wasn’t like most men. War had changed him. He’d intended to be career military, but after ten years in the Army, he’d seen the senseless killing firsthand and now couldn’t wait to return to Trails End and settle down with a woman. He would find someone soft and warm, someone with a backbone who could give as good a she got, and get on with his life. No more sand, blood, or death for him. He’d go to work for Max Hunter, build that cabin he always dreamed of and raise a brood of kids. He’d live life free and easy, away from blood and death, with a good woman by his side.
“My door’s always open to a former soldier. If you need me for anything, you only have to ask,” he replied, hoping she understood that she would always be a friend, but nothing more.
He saw her smile falter slightly, but she recovered quickly, nodding her head.
“Thank you, Sir,” she answered, then stepped back, saluted him, and waited for him to return the respect given.
Just as Shane raised his own salute, an explosion could be heard in the distance. The popping sound of M240s reverberated in the smoldering heat, and Shane turned on his heel and hit the ground running out of the triage tent with Private Sloan following.
Barking out orders as he went, he saw his team begin loading into the RG 33 armored ground ambulance, ready to assist with the injured. Shane headed for the driver’s seat while searching the melee for Private Sloan. He found her wrestling with supplies and ordered her to ride shotgun. Whenever they assisted ground forces under attack, he kept her close. She was the youngest of his unit and the most inexperienced. She’d joined the military to get an education, not to die at the age of nineteen, and he intended to keep her alive so she could follow those dreams.
Shane threw the armored vehicle into drive and took off behind a support platoon heading for the action. He could see mortar fire in the distance and his heart rate sped up. The damage 81 mm ammo could do to a body turned his blood cold, and he took a deep breath for what was to come.
He’d seen enough death and destruction to last two lifetimes and wondered each time they were called to action if his luck would run out. The sense of impending doom was stronger now with his deployment over and his returning stateside just days away. He couldn’t shake the feeling that if he didn’t tread lightly, something would happen. Because of that, his survival instincts had kicked in harder than ever before. For himself, as well as for the men and women under his command.
Keeping his attention focused on the vehicle in front of him, he strained to see when a flash of light in the distance lit up the cloudy sky. He braked hard when the truck thirty meters in front swerved suddenly and then flipped as an explosion blinded him. He sat stunned as he took in the devastation around him. The mangled heap that had once been a military transport now lay smoldering with the bodies of injured soldiers lying scattered on the ground.
Shane gunned the engine and drove the armored ambulance in front of the men to protect them from further harm. Then he and his men bailed out to help retrieve the injured.
Not about to allow Sloan to exit the vehicle while they were under attack, he ordered, “Ready the IVs while we Evac the injured,” as she sat wide-eyed in the front seat.
One by one they assessed who could be saved and whom they’d already lost, then carried them back to the ambulance. Their mobile Medivac could handle a triage of six, but Shane wasn’t leaving without their fallen brothers, so he ordered his men to retrieve those who had died. They’d made it thirty feet when the thunder of an IED shook the earth. Shane shouted for his men to drop to the dirt then covered his own head and kissed his ass good-bye while seconds passed like hours. The explosion that followed knocked him senseless, spewing shrapnel into the air. Hot metal burned his arms and face as fragments rained down on his unit. He could hear his men shouting as the dust cleared, and then bit by agonizing bit, he turned his head toward the explosion that had rocked the earth. The heat from the fire scorched his eyes, but he couldn’t look away. The RG 33, along with Sloan and the rest of the injured, was obliterated.
The air was crisp the day Private Emma Jane Sloan came home for the last time. Shane had stayed with her the entire trip, escorting her back to Alaska. Her family was waiting on the tarmac when the plane touched down; he knew them immediately. The shock of red hair and bright blue eyes told him exactly who her mother was.
From the window, he watched in solemn silence as her mother placed her hand on her daughter’s coffin and wept. Shane turned his head, unable to watch when she broke down, her legs giving out as her wails of heartbreak bounced around the plane’s fuselage. It was a sight he wouldn’t forget as long as he lived; a sight he knew was his fault.
He should have ordered Sloan to stay on base. She’d had no business in Afghanistan and he knew it. He should have pressed his superiors about transferring her, but he hadn’t. She’d been determined to pull her weight and become a valuable soldier in the Army, so he’d kept an eye on her instead of listening to that inner voice that told him to transfer her to a desk job.
Her death was on him and no one else.
Shane deplaned as the honor guard readied themselves to escort Private Sloan to the back of a hearse. As he made his way down the steps, dark auburn hair the color of rich mahogany caught his attention. Dressed in a black wrap dress and standing behind Sloan’s mother was a petite woman with devastated pale-green eyes. When he made it to the bottom step, the woman turned her anguished face in his direction, and their eyes locked and held. A burn deep in his gut began to eat its way up his chest, constricting his lungs, as her eyes seemed to burrow into his soul, piercing his heart. Then her gaze softened as if she could read his tortured mind, and her bottom lip began to tremble.
He recognized her immediately; she was Private Sloan’s older sister. Sloan had shown him her picture once and spoken briefly about the woman who was nine years her senior. She’d told him with pride that she was a court appointed child advocate who counseled and evaluated custody for children who were under Child Protective Services’ care.
Having those pale-green eyes turned his way with something akin to sorrow for him, reminded Shane that when he’d seen her picture, he’d thought she was sexy as hell. The kind of sexy that told a man she’d get off on being on her knees while his hand guided her mouth, but wouldn’t take shit from him either. The kind of sexy that said she’d partner with him in life, bear his children gladly, and do it all while warming his bed with enthusiasm. The type of woman he’d wanted to find when he came home after ten years in the military. However, that was then and this was now. Everything had changed. What dreams he may have had were in a holding pattern. He knew he couldn’t move forward with his life until he conquered his demons and learned to live with the guilt.
Shane turned his attention away from hers and then moved to stand with the other officers. When it was time to load the casket into the hearse, he sharply raised his hand in salute to the girl who had been more kid sister than soldier in his mind. As he stood locked in place, watching as her flag-covered coffin slipped silently into the back, he remembered Sloan’s blue eyes smiling, her face lit up with laughter. He could hear her voice saying, “Sir,” as the doors slammed shut, and his hands shook at the memory. Even though the weather was cool, sweat ran down his back as he tried to gain control of his tattered soul. He was hanging on by a thread and he knew it.
Once Sloan’s coffin was loaded, her mother and sister turned toward the line of officers. What they did next almost took Shane to his knees. Both women shored up their backbone in the face of Emma Jane’s death and presented a united front to Shane and the other officers; saluting back for their fallen daughter and sister.
Shane squeezed his eyes shut to block out the sight. When he opened them again, he met soft, pale-green eyes. Eyes that held sorrow and understanding. Eyes that told him she would forgive him for her sister’s death even if he couldn’t forgive himself.
When those same eyes started moving closer to him, their intent clear, Shane instantly broke from their pull and stepped back from the formation. Then he turned without another glance and headed for the airport and a bottle of whiskey.